When we adopted our three daughters, sixteen years ago, I was confident in my parenting ability. People often complimented me on my three boys and on my parenting. In fact, I used to say that when I die, they could put “She was a good mom” on my headstone.
Not long after my girls came home, that all changed. I no longer felt like a good mom. In fact, there were times I questioned if I was even the right mom for the job. I could hear the message on my headstone being ground off because it was no longer true. What I was doing, how I was parenting, was not working with my girls. They had come to me with grief. Loss. Impacts of trauma. The tools in my toolbox were clearly not the right tools. But back then, there was little research to know what the right tools were. There was very little support, no one to ask. I was on my own.
So…I dug. Researched. Experimented. Tried new ways. I was not going to stop until I figured it out. My girls needed me to find a new way. They deserved that.
Try after try after try, I finally found what worked: meeting each child right where they are at. Once I figured that out, I realized it meant doing it differently. Very differently. I was no longer able to just parent the way everyone else around me was parenting. No longer able to parent the way I was parented.
I began parenting the whole child. Parenting based on their emotional age, yet still honoring their chronological age. Looking behind the behaviors and words. Knowing my whole child. Their strengths. Deficits. Cultural impacts. Their trauma history. Grief and loss. I was no longer parenting just in the moment.
We began parenting differently. It was no longer status quo for our family. When it came to things such as classes or Sunday school, it didn’t work for my girls without me there. Anxiety increased. Behaviors kicked in. Plain and simple, it just didn’t work. So, we changed how we were doing it to make it work for our whole family. For some things, we just didn’t participate. It was just too hard on my girls. But there were times we did participate, just in a way that worked far better for my girls. Rather than dropping them off at class, I volunteered to be the teacher. My girls could still participate, but had the safety and assurance of mom right with them. What a difference it made!
This new way of parenting meant looking behind the behaviors and words to see my girls’ real needs, their real emotions and the impacts of trauma. What often looked angry, was actually anxiety. Fear. Fear of losing another family. Fear of being vulnerable. When I met them there rather than taking the behaviors and words at face value, we could make some real strides. The strides that would get us closer to healing, closer to a strong secure attachment. Closer to a thriving connected family.
An example I often give my coaching clients is the time my oldest daughter got her very first invitation to a birthday party. She was 8 years old and seemed so excited. I was so happy for her. Her first friend. Her first party. It was what I wanted for my daughter. However, I knew that it would cost her emotionally. I knew she would get all wound up. She wouldn’t know how to play the games. She would get upset if she didn’t win. She would have a lot more anxiety than she already had. There would be a huge fallout when she got home because she would be tanked. More behavior, leaving her feeling bad about our relationship. That is not what my daughter needed. Not what she deserved.
So…I was faced with a tough decision. After wrestling with it in my head and my heart, I knew what I needed to do. My daughter and I stood side by side on our front porch, just her and I. Putting my hand gently on her shoulder, I told her that she was not going to the party. She said, “I’m not?” “Not this time,” I responded. There was a pause. Then she sighed a huge sigh. I could hear it. I could feel it. A huge sigh of relief. And a genuine smile came across her face.
The truth is, parenting this way is not always easy and can be lonely at times. Sometimes it would a whole lot easier doing it like everyone else. But, it is what is best for our kiddos. It is what they need. It is what they deserve.
For my girls, parenting this way is really what has helped them heal. They became clear that I could truly take care of them because I was in there with them, where THEY were instead of just where I thought they should be. They began to feel safe. Trust. Heal. Thrive.
At first, I was worried about how all of this was impacting my boys. You know that mom guilt that sometimes trips us up. Was I messing their lives up? I am now 100% certain that meeting each of my children where they are at was an incredible gift for them as well.
I became a very different parent from when I had started. In the past, I too often parented like everyone else. Like the time I sent my oldest son to preschool. Not because it felt right to me. Not because it was what was best for my son. But because it was what I thought I should do. It was what everyone else was doing.
By the time my middle son reached that age, I was doing things a whole lot differently. Thank goodness. He was recently diagnosed with dyslexia. At that time, we didn’t know that. We just knew he was struggling to learn to read. So…my wiser self knew to meet him where he was at. Not where his siblings were. Not where his peers were. Right where he was at. And I have to say, he learned to read when he was ready, in the way that worked for him. And he is a much happier student than if we wouldn’t have met him where he was at. And isn’t that the goal we have for our kiddos — for them to be healthy and happy?
Looking back over the past sixteen years, this is one of the greatest lessons I’ve learned: to intentionally meet each of my children right where they are. I have to say, it changed everything! For my girls. For my boys. For me. And for our entire family.